5 February 2021 -- On Playing Cover Songs

In March and April of 2020, as a conscious response to the COVID quarantine, in my heartbreak about not being able to play music in public, I embarked on a song-a-day challenge to both keep me occupied and to reach and connect better with friends I could no longer see in person. I eventually posted 50 songs in 50 days on my Facebook page, and it was an amazing exercise, actually, with all sorts of positive results: I hadn’t been that focused on playing music since I was 13 and just getting started (since I was in “play until your fingers bleed” mode); it allowed music to become a discipline for me again; it organized and productively shaped my long and restless days in quarantine; I relearned a whole lot of songs; I seriously improved my guitar playing chops; I recorded an archive of several hours of music that I can share with some future version of myself and other people, too, of course; I got lots of practice as a recovering perfectionist, the necessity of putting something out there daily getting me far more comfortable with recording and sharing songs with flaws and flubs and infelicities; and I got lots of nice comments about how the project helped ease other people’s tensions and stresses from quarantine, how they came to look forward to my daily offering. 

But perhaps the most important result of the tune-a-day challenge was that I left the project with a strong and sharp desire to focus on writing and performing my own songs. I had toyed with committing to my own work repeatedly over the years, but I never took the plunge. But this time I followed through, launching this website on my birthday (August 20th) and rendering and posting 22 of my own songs in the time since. It has been liberating and pure and a challenge and a delight, but as I mentioned in my last post, the stresses and anxieties about the election and its aftermath led to a significant slowing of my productivity of late, and I confess that it is taking longer to gear back up than I would have thought, and certainly longer than I would like. 

So imagine my surprise when I found myself playing Tom Waits’ “The Heart of Saturday Night,” a few nights ago, just out of the blue, with no real intention of doing so, followed by Warren Zevon’s “Keep Me in Your Heart,” and the Jayhawks’ “Save It for a Rainy Day,” and David Gray’s “Silver Lining,” and the Beatles’ “Things We Said Today,” and so on. But the experience of doing so was so very different from back in March and April. When the tune-a-day challenge was over, I tried to put a hard stop, a real break between my singing and playing and other people’s songs. Indeed, I succeeded in doing so. I had done a sincere seven-week homage to other people’s art, paid my respects, and – I can see in retrospect – thought I had moved on, that I had to move on, and leave other people’s work behind if I was going to be true to my own work. 

But, wow, my experience this week suggests how very wrong I was about that, or how very far I have come since August, or both, I suppose. Playing other people’s music this week has been a joy, a delight, like meeting up with old friends, or putting on my favorite, most comfortable shirt, or eating my favorite foods, or walking on my favorite beach. It’s just easy, a pleasure, not the previous angsty challenge. The chords and melody just come, are just flowing effortlessly and damn near perfectly from some unconscious and uncontrolled part of part of my brain, like a prayer or a gift, unalloyed and gleaming. Given my attempted hard break with other people’s songs, I would have thought that playing them again would feel like cheating, or going backwards, or failing somehow. It’s been nothing like that at all. 

Perhaps it’s just “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.”  Perhaps it’s a new found and hard-earned confidence in my own skills that allows me this new relationship with “cover” songs. I keep urging my students to think of themselves as artists, and perhaps I have actually grown into that sense of myself as well. Perhaps it’s knowing that I don’t have to play other people’s music, that I am coming to it on a different footing, for different purposes. 

I’ve never liked the term “cover songs.”  It feels too superficial. The covers of things are their thin and visible surfaces, of course, not their substance. Or it feels too safe, an effort to appease other people’s desires or anxieties, as in “covering the spread” or “covering the bases.”  For instance, I remember feeling like I should have a Dylan song in my repertoire, just in case someone requested a Dylan song. Cover songs, I think, will always feel like someone else’s words falling out of my mouth. 

Maybe I’ve just come to appreciate my interpretations of other people’s words and music, come to believe in my own abilities to identify and curate and deconstruct and revise and commit to and come to inhabit in my own way songs that really matter to me. In writing this post, I’ve realized that I have really long-term relationships with songs that matter to me, that I keep playing, that have made the cut and don’t fall out of the repertoire or out of my life, that they and I and what they mean to me have both not changed at all and changed a great deal over the years. 

This week, the students in my creativity class are reading about and trying to recognize or initiate their habits, their routines, and their rituals of creativity, the beginning, middle, and end points of their daily practices and processes of creativity so they can get a better conscious control over them. Many artists note the need to find and embrace an effective “triggering ritual,” for instance, some habitual action that will get you over the threshold from inaction to action, that will signal your departure from and pull you away from your other activities and move you into your creative ones. My lack of productivity of late stems, in part, from my inability to do this, to just get started, to get over the hump, to overcome the inertia, to dive in. What I have found this week is that playing my hard-won versions of other people’s songs – meeting these old friends, putting on these comfortable clothes, eating these favorite foods – is exactly what I need to do it. They warm me up very nicely indeed, hands and voice and heart and soul, help me get to work, and ask for nothing in return except my continuing loyalty, which I am humbled and honored to profess.

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